So, in commemoration of International Women’s Day (which I want to make a plea for us all to have as a holiday–let’s replace Columbus day, come on) it is also Blog Against Sexism Day, or Blog for Gender Liberation. I personally like that title the best, and will interpret it in my own way.
I like the opportunity to bring up this subject, because it’s one of the main reasons I identify as a radical doula. It’s also one of the reasons I pulled back from the midwifery/birth activist community a few years ago. As I got deeper into theories about the social construction of gender and sex (particularly Judith Butler), I started to push back on the rhetoric used by midwives and birth activists about women’s bodies.
How did some of this logic fit into an understanding that the biological difference between men and women is really socially constructed? How do birthing women (and the ability to reproduce) fit in? Butler has some interesting responses to these ideas, which I admit are kind of obtuse and difficult to decipher. But once you get through the intense academic language, there are some important ideas there. Bear with me.
The midwifery/birth activist movement is very heavily based on embracing femininity and the female body, particularly its perceived reproductive capacity, as the necessary center of the movement toward gender equity. This idea is kind of problematic, particularly if you believe that we need to move beyond these perceived biological differences.
Keep reading for more explanation…
She argues that one of the categories used to define gender and sex difference is one’s presumed ability to reproduce, when in reality most women cannot reproduce for most of their lives.
“Although women’s bodies generally speaking are understood as capable of impregnation, the fact of the matter is that there are female infants and children who cannot be impregnated, there are older women who cannot be impregnated, there are women of all ages who cannot be impregnated, and even if they could ideally, that is not necessarily the salient feature of their bodies or even of their being women. What the question does is try to make the problematic of reproduction central to the sexing of the body. But I am not sure that is, or ought to be, what is absolutely salient or primary in the sexing of the body. If it is, I think it’s the imposition of a norm, not a neutral description of biological constraints. ”
So our definition of the category “women” is based on a lot of different things (depending on the context), one of which is the ability to bear children. But women who are infertile are still considered women, as are baby girls, and post-menopausal women. Other ways of defining woman-hood are similarly complicated–chromosomes (there a significant number of people born with out a clear XX or XY, who are still assigned to one category or another), physical characteristics (also lots of gray area) and hormones.
So without trying to argue about the problems with the sex/gender binary too much, what I want to highlight is that people in the birth activist movement are guilty of relying on a lot of rhetoric and logic which reinforces and re-entrenches ideas about the biological differences between men and women–sometimes in ways that are regressive. For example, the idea of women’s intuition about childbirth, or that women’s bodies “know” how to give birth, has frightening implications for the differences between men and women’s intelligence. What are we saying about women’s brains and how could that be used against women and the feminist movement?
Just some food for thought on Blog for Gender Liberation Day.